On Having Faith (and Teaching Reading) by Kate Roberts
It was the last period of the last day of my first year teaching. My homeroom was noisily exiting after what I thought was a very rousing exit speech and Alicia was the last to leave. She paused. For a moment I thought she might apologize – for the violent outbursts, or the obscenities, or the general disrespect. Or maybe, I thought, she was going to thank me. She looked back and grinned. I smiled hopefully.
Then she laughed at my earnest expression, and hurled a basket of my favorite books across the room.
As I watched her leave, I knew one thing for sure: I had failed. She was no better a reader after spending a year in my classroom. She hated books, she hated school, and most of all she hated me.
When I was a kid I hated reading. Here are the things my parents tried to convince me to read:
They bought me books
They read books to me
They modeled good reading habits
They repeated steps one – three for seventeen years
By all accounts, it didn’t work. I graduated high school with good grades but without becoming a reader. In fact, I graduated avoiding reading whenever possible.
Teaching is a lesson in having faith. Teaching reading is a graduate course in the subject. The work we do is subterranean – it all happens internally. Even when we ask kids to write or talk, we only see the tip of the iceberg of thoughts and feelings they have about a book or reading in general.
Sometimes we get to see growth. We watch as a kid finds the book they fall head-over-heels for, or as another makes huge strides in their ability to view the ideas between the words.
But other times? Other times we end our year wondering if we ever really helped that one kid – the one who never really got into reading, the one who shrugged when we asked how his book was, the one who left his book in the desk, day after day after day.
You know the one: The Student Who Got Away.
Here we are in June – for most of us, there is at least one of these kids. Alicia was that kid for me during my first year of teaching. There have been many others.
Faith, of course, is the belief in something you can’t see. We have faith in lots of things. I do not understand nor can I see electricity but when I flip on my light switch, I have faith it will come on. That is one kind of faith – the faith in something I don’t understand, but that is a part of my life. Like reading: we have a hard time understanding how reading works, but we have faith that it does.
There is another kind of faith, the tougher kind. This is the faith it takes to keep moving forward even when things are bleak. It is the faith of the fantasy novel, the faith that as we trudge the dark side of the mountain, that we will see the sun someday. This is the faith we need when we are working with The Student Who Got Away. We must believe that even if we never see any evidence of our teaching, that seeds are being planted.
However, it is not enough that we sit back and just feel faithful. “To believe in something, and not to live it, is dishonest,” Mahatma Gandhi once said, and many of us have heard the biblical proverb, “faith without works is dead.” The truth is, in order to have faith in something, you have to work awfully hard at it, one foot in front of the other, without expectation of reward. Our students who are not reading, who will not read, who refuse to read – these are the ones we must show up for again and again, the ones we must prove our faith in, regardless of whether we see the fruits of our labor.
There are some simple ways to show our students who hate reading that we have faith in them. Here are a few:
Ways to Show Faith in Your Non-Readers
1. Buy them books
Of course, you can always just recommend great books to kids, but there is something about a teacher handing you a book and saying, “Hey, I saw this and thought of you. It’s a gift.”
2. Read books to them
The best way to plant reading seeds is to plant entire books and stories in the heads of your non-readers. I often chose my read-alouds with my resistant readers in mind, searching for titles that might entice them.
3. Model good reading habits
This is one of my favorite things about the Nerdy Book Club. This club knows how to show people what it means to love reading, and how to love books! Kids learn from what the adults around them do, not what they say. So “do” loving reading in front of them.
You can’t quit. Even if it is April and The Student Who Got Away is sitting with her arms crossed around her chest refusing to read, you can’t ever just shrug your shoulders and say, “Well I tried.” Keep the faith, and keep at it.
You might notice that these are the same moves my parents tried with me growing up. This is no accident. Somewhere in college, around the time I got to choose my own studies, all of those seeds they planted began to sprout and I, well, blossomed into a full-fledged English major and future English teacher.
And one day, during my third year teaching, after school, I looked up and saw a young lady at the door. It took me a second to recognize her. It was Alicia. She smiled. And apologized.
She was doing really well in English class that year.
Kate Roberts (@teachkate) taught middle school language arts in Brooklyn, NY before joining the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project in 2005. She is the co- author, with Christopher Lehman, of the upcoming book, Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lesson for Analyzing Texts – and Life, out in late fall 2013 from Heinemann. Kate also co-authors the blog “indent” (kateandmaggie.com), and is working on a Young Adult novel.
Thanks for the thoughtful post. Today’s my first day of summer vacation. As I sit here reflecting on the past ten months, I’m happy to say I didn’t have an ‘Alicia’ this year, but I have in the past and anticipate her being in my class in future years. I will save your post to remember to “keep the faith!” Thanks and happy reading! Liz
Thank you for writing this! I taught middle & high school struggling readers for 4 years, and am still sometimes haunted by the ones that got away. I had an ‘Alicia’ moment in the grocery store a few years ago when I saw a student I’d had a couple of years before who said “I’m sorry I was such an ass in 9th grade.” How could I not smile at that?
Thanks for the inspiration. It’s so easy t get discouraged when we think we’ve lost a kid. But with faith and perseverance, we can make a difference to all. It may be today or it may be in 5 years and we may never know. Faith is the key!
Well said! I know those classes and the kids that you think got away. It is amazing when they return to say thank you. I had an e-mail from one of those kids – now an adult looking for the title of one of my read alouds from our fifth grade class. She had to share it with her nephew! Sweet!
I still think of those students who “got away”. My heart sinks when I recall them. The ones I could’ve done more for…
This is a great post, Kate. So inspiring!
I had more than one Alicia in my class this year and your post reminds me that I did work hard to plant the seeds in their worlds and maybe someday those will come to fruition! Thanks for the reminder!
And now I am crying…thank you for not giving up and thank you for reminding all of us of the same. I needed this on this summer day as I ponder the reading year ahead of me.
This is a powerful and beautifully written reminder. I had several Alicias this year. I’d like to believe that I had the kind of faith in them that will eventually make a difference.
You are an inspiration to us all. I’ve thought about the nonreachables for years. My first book is an effort in that direction. Great blog post!
As a parent of two children with dyslexia, I so appreciate this post and teachers who don’t give up on my kids, and who understand their learning difference. st I have one message In response to your post: my children learn differently. When tried and true approaches don’t work for a struggling reader, try again with another approach. So many children are “ones that get away,” because no one has identified their learning difference appropriately. For my children, it was not enough to have exposure to print and good books, to have it poured into them. That helps, but it is not the whole thing. Reading is not a mystery. We know how kids learn to read, and they need the basic skills to do so: phonemic awareness (and other building blocks) taught the right way. Weaknesses widen and habits deepen as time goes by, so catch them early. Try to catch them and identify how they learn and they’ll stay — given time, trained teachers and the right approach, all kids can learn to read. Learning how to love reading depends upon it.
Thank you Kate. The “is what I’m doing making any difference” question and the kid that got away (AKA the one I failed) haunt me every year.
My own children are resistant readers and they are surrounded by literature and have had good teaching. Right now my 15 year old is listening to the audio book I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (a required summer read), because if she had to read it on her own she might “kill herself.” Why should my students be any different?
Thanks for reminding me to keep the faith and to rinse/repeat.